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12.21.2010

Travel Tuesday: Barcelona and Seville

So, I started my Travel Tuesday posts about my Spain trip long ago with my posts on San Fermin and my encierro (running with the bulls) experience, and when I did so I promised that my Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid posts would be coming soon. Fast forward nearly two months after my first Spain post, and I am finally getting around to my next one in the series. Sorry for the delay, but life moves even more quickly when you are planning a 30th birthday celebration for your husband, holiday planning, plus a 1st birthday party for your son. This of course on top of the usual work, family, and life obligations.

OK, enough of the explanations (and excuses). Let's get on with my post about Barcelona and Seville! I will begin this post with information specific to our visit in Barcelona, continue with information specific to our visit in Seville, then cap it off with information on visiting Spain in general (tips on the Renfe train system, etiquette, tapas, business and restaurant hours of operation, etc.), so definitely read through the very end if you are planning a trip to Spain.

Barcelona

We just loved Barcelona. Good food, good people, good public transportation system, and a beautiful city in the Catalunya region of Spain.

Hotel:
We love a boutique hotel, whether in the US or abroad. We were so thankful to have found U232, and can say without a doubt that it is where we will stay anytime we return to Barcelona. The prices were great, the hotel very chic, and the staff ridiculously friendly and helpful. To find this place I used my two trusty travel tools: Kayak to check for the lowest prices and TripAdvisor to compare top rated hotels with real customer reviews. I cross-check using the two tools and narrow down my hotel choices in that way. One of the things we loved the best about this hotel is that it was NOT in the middle of the tourist area near Las Ramblas. Why did we love this? Several reasons: first, the price was better; second, the restaurants near our hotel's prices were better; and third, we got more of an "authentic" experience since the food places we visited were filled with locals and not tourists. Being away from Las Ramblas did not make it difficult for us to see some of the tourist attractions, since the hotel is right near a subway stop, and it was just a few subway stops away from Las Ramblas and many of the famouse Gaudi buildings. More about all that soon.

Subway:
As I mentioned above, Barcelona has a great public transportation system. We were able to save tons of money on taxis by using the subway. You can honestly get nearly anywhere you need to go in Barcelona by using the subway (including the airport). We got 10 ride passes for around 8 Euro, which could get the two of us around all day between the hotel, restaurants that were not in walking distance, and tourist attractions (each cab ride is 15-30 Euro to give you some comparison). You can also save up loose change and use that for 1-way rides.

Las Ramblas:
Another good thing to save your pocket change for is if you plan to visit Las Ramblas. This is a very touristy area, but if you feel like being silly, it doesn't hurt to take a stroll down this promenade. It reminded me of my neighborhood here in Hollywood, since it is filled with street performers. Only the performers on Las Ramblas are much cheaper! You only need to leave 10 or 20 Euro cents in order to take a picture with one of them. I thought it would be funny to see how many embarassing pictures I could subject my husband to:



 
Gaudi Buildings:
An iconic image of Barcelona to me would be something with some Gaudi architechture. Some of the main attractions:

Parc Guell (from Wikipedia)


La Pedrera

Casa Batllo

La Sagrada Familia

Picasso Museum:
One of my favorite parts of Barcelona was the Picasso Museum. This was such an amazing collection of Picasso's work, from his early work through his late work. I highly recommend a visit here if you are an art lover like myself. Note that it gets super busy, so I recommend going closer to when they open. We did this and the line was very short. When we left, the line was wrapped down the street.

Paella:
The place to go for paella in Barcelona is at Barceloneta beach. Really fresh seafood, huge portions, and just overall deliciousness. My mouth is watering just thinking about it...


Seville

Aaaah, Seville. A beautiful, old city in the Andalucia region of Spain. The least-touristy part of our trip to Spain. This is where other Spaniards go to getaway for the weekend. Found a great website before our trip that listed 85 things to do in Seville. Worth checking out, for sure.

Hotel:


We stayed at the NH Plaza de Armas. Great hotel with a nice room and great service. Just across the bridge from La Triana, and a quick walk (10-15 minutes) to the city center (Cathedral area). Definitely a good deal for the money, and an AWESOME breakfast.

La Triana:
The Triana district of Seville is another culture unto itself. Great place for a truly local experience, and awesome seafood. Also, great nightlife can be found there on Calle Betis.


 
Churros:
Breakfast or snack of champions in Spain. You can get them plain or, a popular way to do it, dipped in chocolate. We got our churros at a stand at the beginning of the Triana bridge. Apparently that's one of the best spots for churros in Seville, and I can't argue with that.


Flamenco:
Seville is arguably the birthplace of Flamenco in Spain. A trip to Seville would not be complete without seeing some real, live Flamenco dancing.


Shopping District:
You can do some great shopping in Seville in the Tetuan area.

Architecture:
Seville is an incredibly old city (over 2,000 years old). While much of the buildings in the town center are of Gothic Moorish style, you can even see the Old City Walls that were built between the 8th and 13th centuries.


 
Misc. Tips for Travelling in Spain

Renfe:
One of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to get between cities in Spain is via train. The rail-system in Spain is called Renfe. The experience of traveling Renfe was incredible. The experience of purchasing Renfe tickets online on the other hand, is a nightmare. The best thing was finding this TripAdvisor post, which walks you through the entire process of searching for and purchasing trips on the Renfe site, including explanations and solutions to get around the many bugs the site has. Even then, you may end up having to try a few times. If you are not on as much of a budget, you can also purchase Renfe tickets through RailEurope, but you will have to pay more than their value, and you will have to have some time before your trip, as they do not do eTickets for Renfe (which the Renfe site does), they will actually mail you hard copies of your tickets.

Restaurant/Store Hours of Operation:
I have always heard that Spain runs on its own hours. Boy, was that true. The good thing about this for Americans is it helps with the adjustment to the time zone differences both before and after your trip. People do not wake up early. You generally get breakfast around 11:00. Lunch is around 1:30 or so, as businesses close at 3:00 or 4:00 for siesta. Dinner is what really tripped me out. Dinner places don't even open until 7:00 AT THE EARLIEST, many not even until 9:00. Spaniards love going out for dinner, so dinner reservations are highly recommended. People eat dinner at honest-to-God, 9:00, 10:00 or 11:00. One night our dinner reservation was at 11:30 pm! After dinner, Spaniards stay up for several hours into the early morning drinking wine and dancing. My kind of place! But, just remember, if you are hungry at 6:00, you are SOL. Do your best to get on Spanish time, eating a late lunch, taking a nice siesta nap in the afternoon, then going to dinner around 9:00.

Coffee:
Quick tip on ordering coffee in Spain: if you order a "cafe," it will actually be a shot of really rich, black espresso. So if you want something lighter, order a "cafe con leche" which is a delicious mix of that same rich espresso with hot milk. Here are some pics of coffee from our trip just for the purpose of me remembering their rich taste (and the taste of the rich, gelato-like ice cream... Spain uses less air fluff in their ice cream than we use in the US, making every bite pure icy goodness).



 
Wine:
Another yummy treat in Spain are the wines. Our favorite varietals were Rioja and Tempranillo. What amazed me was how cheap the wine was. It was sometimes cheaper than a bottle of water! I remember one place where my glass of Rioja was 1.80 Euro, which allowed for many glasses to be consumed with my tapas :). Bottles of wine are also really cheap (for good wine) at a convenience or grocery store, so stock up for your room. Gotta do some pre-partying while you wait for the restaurants to open back up for dinner. My theory as to why wine is so reasonably priced is that it is just an ingrained part of the culture and a meal (like water).

Bread:
A good piece of information that I was glad to know before I went to Spain is that the bread on your table at restaurants is not free. They will charge you for it based on consumption. But man, did I LOVE "pan tomaca" (a crusty piece of toast with a tomato and olive oil spread). Worth the charge, especially if you have been hungry waiting for your late dinner.

 
Ham:
My husband said it best when he said "a country that embraces pork as much as this one does is a country for me." Ham is as much a part of Spanish culture as the bull fights and the Flamenco. Enjoy it in as many ways as you can, mi amigo. They have some great quality swine.

Tapas:
A trip to Spain would not be complete without a tapas crawl (going from bar to bar sharing tapas - small dishes). Tapas come in a seemingly unlimited amount of forms, and are categorized in three basic ways: hot, cold, and pinxtos (straight from the bar, ready made). Word to the wise: you are in a foreign country and you can not assume that people speak English (many do not speak any English at all), or that menus are translated into English. Therefore, my advice is to do a little research on traditional Spanish tapas ahead of time so you know what to order. Otherwise, if you are not picky and love being experimental (like we are), just shoot blind and go for it :). But if you do prefer to do the research, Wikipedia has a great list of the traditional Spanish tapas here.

Hotel Breakfasts:
While we are on the subject of food, I wanted to share another great getting-the-most-bang-for-your-buck tip. If your hotel has an option to include free breakfast, or add a breakfast to your tab, DO IT. Their breakfasts are a buffet of delicacies: fritattas, many different types of hams and cheeses, fresh fruits, pastries. You'd spend way more on the ham alone if you did this a la carte at a restaurant. All of the hotels we stayed at in Spain offered this, and we are glad we took them up on it.

Etiquette/Tipping:
Whenever you visit a foreign country, it is important to be aware of the tipping rules and the cultural etiquette. Here is some insight into tipping in Spain. I have also found a good list here that I recommend you read before your trip. Some highlights:

■ Generally, Spaniards stand very close when talking.
■ Spaniards speak a lot with their hands. Never mimic them.
■ It is acceptable and common to be late by 30 minutes in southern Spain and 15 minutes in northern Spain for social meetings. Never be late for a bullfight.
■ Spaniards don't waste food. It is better to decline food rather than leave it on your plate.
■ Appearance is extremely important to Spaniards. They dress elegantly, even for casual occasions.
■ Dress conservatively. Avoid bright or flashy colors. (Though I will note that people dress very trendily and fashionably, so in that way you do not need to be conservative)
■ Expect to be interrupted when speaking.
■ Be patient. Nothing is done in a hurry. Spanish trademarks are procrastination and delay.
■ Traditionally, a macho and chauvinistic behavior toward women has persisted, known as machismo. This has changed drastically over the last few years.
■ A woman should be aware of eye contact. Returning a man's gaze may be interpreted as flirting or a show of interest.

Also, do not be shocked by PDA. The Spanish are very affectionate and passionate people, and so witnessing a public make-out sesh is pretty much guaranteed.

Just don't do this, or it'll cost you:

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